Over the past few weeks I have written a few articles looking over the past decade in media. First I started with film, then music, and finally theatre. This week, I have decided to end the series with a look at the best television offerings of the 2000s. When evaluating the medium, I turned to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ annual Emmy Awards. Given each September, the Emmy Awards highlight the past season’s best offerings in primetime television. The Academy offers awards in a variety of categories ranging from technical to writing, from acting to mini-series and movies. However, their two biggest categories are considered to be the awards for best comedy and best drama series. Therefore, I thought that was the best way to go.
Of course that limits me from including some of the best television of the decade including “Angels in America” and “Grey Gardens” but I digress. For the purposes of this article, I must limit the results.
It’s important to understand the way Emmy voting currently works. Once the membership submits its choices for nominations on popular vote, nominees are then chosen by the combination of that vote and blue ribbon panels. Once the nominees are selected, each nominee is allowed to enter one episode (or in the case of a show, a series of six episodes) that highlight that show’s best work of the year. The system works very well to reward some quality programming, but it also works against logic. For instance, a performance or show can win for simply submitting one great episode (or a collection of great episodes) when the season as a whole could have been awful. That would explain how winners like James Spader, Katherine Heigel, and Blythe Danner all beat more deserving nominees.
There have been twelve winners of best comedy or drama in the 2000s. Some shows like the “West Wing” and “30 Rock” won over and over, while other shows like “Arrested Development” and “Lost” only won once. Either way, that leaves two shows on the honorable mention list. I would have to say that 2002’s Best Comedy winner, “Friends” and 2006’s Best Drama winner, “24” would claim those distinctions. It’s not that I don’t like or appreciate these shows, but the list is actually fairly deep in quality. In the case of “Friends,” I feel that although the show won in 2002 and went on to run a few seasons after, it really does represent the 90s more than the new millennium. In the case of “24,” although I think the show changed the way a one hour drama could operate, it has never really been my cup of tea. I appreciate the work of Emmy winner Cherry Jones, but the show won in a season that I wouldn’t claim to be its best.
Ten Best Comedy or Drama series winners of the 2000s
#10 – “Lost” – Best Drama Series (2005)
Rarely do shows win the big awards in their first season. “Lost” was the show that changed this tradition. In a season where “Lost” was a bit overshadowed by ABC’s other freshman, “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” ended up having the last laugh on Emmy night. I’ll be honest, though, “Lost” has never really gelled with me. It doesn’t captivate me the way I want it to. However, I greatly appreciate the way that “Lost” changed the television landscape and provided something different and unique. As the show ends its run this year, I think “Lost” will be admired more than remembered in future years.
#9 – “30 Rock” – Best Comedy Series (2007, 2008, 2009)
“30 Rock” was the show that was supposed to fail. In fact, if you watch the first season, it wasn’t nearly as sharp as it is now. “30 Rock” debuted in the shadow of the other NBC freshman failure “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” which seemed to get all the buzz. “Studio 60” and “30 Rock” were compared because they both followed a “Saturday Night Live” theme show and its behind-the-scenes stories. However, as “Studio 60” failed, “30 Rock” found its footing. It has never lost its category (although “Glee” and “Modern Family” will probably attempt to take it down this year). “30 Rock” has never been a smash ratings winner. As popular as Emmy winners Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin are, the show has never pulled in the masses. I think that probably falls on the fact that the show appears very inside and can often appear cold and cynical. I think that this is probably its greatest strength and greatest weakness.
#8 – “Will and Grace” – Best Comedy Series (2000)
“Will and Grace” was great in its heyday. In 2000, the show was in the midst of its creative peak. The second season was the one that finally won. It was the season that featured Jack’s coming out to his mother which was probably won the show its Emmy and defiantly was responsible for the wins by stars Megan Mullaly and Sean Hayes. However, after the 2000 season, the shows quality went way down. It started to feature guest stars every other week and began to take itself too seriously. In the end, however, “Will and Grace” was the show that truly broke down barriers and succeeded in ways that “Ellen” couldn’t. “Will and Grace” opened the door to allow gay mainstream characters on shows like “Modern Family,” “Glee,” and even “Project Runway,” and the fantastic “Ru Paul’s Drag Race.” (YES I SAID RU PAUL)
#7 – “Arrested Development” – Best Comedy Series (2004)
As in the case of “Lost,” “Arrested Development” broke with tradition and won the Emmy in its debut year. This show was so sharply written and deeply funny that it is surprising that it only won once. It reopened the career of Portia De Rossi and Jason Bateman and introduced us to Michael Cera. However, the show never succeeded in the ratings and can actually thank its Emmy win for the short run that it had. “Arrested Development” never really found an audience and therefore, never got a lot of exposure. Perhaps it was too new, too dirty, and too cynical for its time. It did, however, open the door for tons of shows and remains one of the decade’s best comedies.
#6 – “The West Wing” – Best Drama Series (2000, 2001, 2002, 2003)
“The West Wing” won Best Drama Series four consecutive times and probably would have won more had it not been for its steep decline in quality. By 2004, although the acting was still great, the show lost its initial spark and vigor. This was probably the result of waning interest of creator Aaron Sorkin and casting changes. In its opening seasons, “The West Wing” was brilliant. Sorkin’s trademark “walk and talk” dialogue was sharp, funny, and extremely well written. The show provided some relief to those who wanted a break from the Bush administration, without ever leaning way too far left or right. The true star of the “West Wing” was the cast. The entire primary cast was nominated through its run and many of the stars won their respective categories. Special mention has to be made for Allison Janey who won four separate times for her work as press secretary CJ Craig. She was/is a brilliant actress who found the perfect role at the perfect time. Other deserving cast members included winners Richard Schiff and Stockard Channing.
#5 – “Everybody Loves Raymond” – Best Comedy Series (2003, 2005)
The situation comedy is dead. That could be said in 2010 as well as 2005. I would argue that the last great sitcom with an audience and traditional style was “Raymond.” Since then, the closest thing that we have is “Two and a Half Men” and I can’t stand that show. “Raymond” was the show that was never supposed to work. It featured a traditional family with little interest in modern storytelling. The show almost feels like a classic from decades past. Featuring Emmy winners Ray Romano, Patricia Heaton, Brad Garrett, and Doris Roberts, “Raymond” is one of only a handful of shows to have so many acting winners. Poor Peter Boyle was the only primary cast member to not win for “Raymond.” The thing that made “Raymond” so funny (and popular in syndication) was the relationships and the way that it almost felt too close to home for millions of Americans. The dup of Heaton and Roberts was hilarious because it was extremely well written, but also because it was way too realistic.
#4 – “The Office” – Best Comedy Series (2006)
Speaking of realistic, early episodes of “The Office” could be hard to watch because it so closely resembled many American workplaces. “The Office” started as a British comedy that was adapted and taken overseas. It succeeded in ways that other imports didn’t. However, it wasn’t until its second season that the show truly started to sail. It set up the Jim/Pam story line beautifully. Stars Jenna Fisher and John Krasinski played their scenes with such quiet charm and elegance. The following seasons were also great, but seemed to get lost under the “30 Rock” train. However, by about 2008, “The Office” started to fall a bit in quality when it began to rely too much on pranks and the obvious. Even so, it’s still better than most comedies on television and really pioneered the “talking directly to the camera” technique, which is so popular today.
#3 – “Mad Men” – Best Drama Series (2008, 2009)
Next September’s Best Drama Series will probably end up going to “Mad Men” again. Although there were some dry episodes this season, the writers wrapped up the story lines in a gorgeous season finale that will surely rack up tons of hardware this fall. “Mad Men” debuted in the summer of 2008 on little-seen AMC (which now has a series of hits) and was different than anything on television. The show follows the life of ad executive Don Draper (Hamm) in the 1960s New York City that we all imagine. It juggles Draper’s time spent between his advertising job and his home life. It’s full of not-so-subtle references to the differences and similarities between the 60s and today and although Hamm became a major star, the cream of the crop on “Mad Men” falls on the women. Christina Hendricks, Elisabeth Moss, and January Jones continue to amaze viewers and critics week after week on AMC. They bring such depth and clarity to their characters in a time when women were pushed back against the fence.
#2 and #1 (Sorry, I have to call it a tie) – “The Sopranos” – Best Drama Series (2004, 2007) & “Sex and the City” – Best Comedy Series (2001)
There’s no question that the 2000s belonged to HBO. The premium pay station truly came into its own and started to feature original programming more prominently. Although they always had great miniseries/movies and even comedies like “The Larry Sanders Show,” it took “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos” to put HBO on the map. HBO has had some great offerings since, but it has yet to find anything that remotely comes close to the popularity and critical support that these sister shows got.
Both shows debuted around the same time and both allowed New York City (and Jersey) to act as a silent cast member. They showcased the city and its people in a way that no other show could. They both broke ground on the type of writing, acting, and language that you could use and each truly tackled 9/11 in a legitimate way.
In the case of “Sex and the City,” the cast and crew broke ground and featured wonderfully rich performances by all four cast members. If you had to pick standouts, you might want to go with Emmy winners, Sarah Jessica Parker and Cynthia Nixon. However, all of the ladies were brilliant. What started out as a snarky social commentary, started to allow real consequences and weight to enter in to each of its characters lives. The show dealt with real issues like abortion, death, infertility, adultery, and growing old with grace. Of course, the show also featured some of the wildest and funniest scenes ever featured on television. Scenes so graphic that I can’t even describe them on this page, but still make me laugh every time I think of them. Many shows have tried to put on the stilettos since “Sex” ended, but none have really succeeded. The popularity of the reruns and the films have only restated the point that “Sex and the City” was/is truly one of the best and most groundbreaking shows ever to appear on television, paid or not.
In the case of “The Sopranos,” many Italian-American groups hated it. They felt that the show played into stereotypes and didn’t truly showcase their true lifestyle. They were probably right. However, none of this matters because it is probably one of the five finest programs to ever appear on TV. Although the show left us in 2007 with a brilliant and controversial ending, the doors that “Sopranos” opened are immense. It had the best writing, directing, and acting of the decade and really elevated the medium in a way that no other drama could. I still consider the season four episode, “Whitecaps” to be the finest single episode of television ever! Hands down! The acting by leads James Gandolfini and Edie Falco carried the show through six brilliant seasons to its climax. Of course, the remainder of the cast included brilliant performances by winners Michael Imperioli, Drea de Mateo, and nominee Lorraine Bracco. Many have tried to copy the success of “The Sopranos” but the show was so special, so different, so fantastic, that it is doubtful that the magic will never be repeated.
So we end the decade of television by truly appreciating some of the great quality that we had. Of course, the decade gave us “Survivor”, “Who wants to Marry a Millionaire” and “American Idol,” but in the end, it gave us groundbreaking, original, and wonderful television that we deeply needed and still appreciate.
Wayne Bell is a regular contributor for the Fayetteville Flyer. He moved to Fayetteville in 2003 for his Masters Degree and you can almost always catch him at Little Bread Co. or Hammontree’s. For more of Wayne’s contributions, visit his author page.